By Katherine Mathieson, Chief Executive of the British Science Association 


On Wednesday 27 November, the fourth Huxley Summit took place at the Royal Institution in London, against the backdrop of an impending general election. More than 300 leaders in the business, policy and science sectors gathered to discuss and debate the biggest issues facing society. This year’s theme centred around the importance of collaboration, with specific focus on the shift in conversations from ‘climate change’ to ‘climate emergency’, the importance of technology regulation in the future, and using collaboration and representation to solve complex issues.

There was a buzz throughout the day as robust and engaging panels and interviews tackled questions such as: “How can we enable successful collaboration by overcoming some of the biases facing underrepresented groups across business policy, science and the media?” and “What is the role for UK business and government in using its global reach to make a significant impact?”

From the main auditorium sessions through to the lunchtime roundtables and networking opportunities, there were plenty of fascinating discussions around what we can do together to tackle some of the biggest issues facing our society. I have identified a few of the most prominent talking points from the day.

Kamal Ahmed (right) addresses the crowd during the Huxley Summit

1. Media movements

The first panel of the day featured an important discussion about the shift in messaging from ‘climate change’ to ‘climate emergency’ and the role of governments and corporations in doing so. Questions put to the first panel of the day featuring Richard Kirkman, Dr Tamsin Edwards, Baroness Bryony Worthington and BBC Editorial Director Kamal Ahmed largely centred on the role of the media in shaping environmental discussions, in particular, the media’s failure to connect with the public, and to convey environmental issues in a way which is engaging and accessible. I have, at times, noticed a similar trend with science communication – where stories are sometimes dropped because they are not ‘newsy’ enough, or they are simply hard to engage with because the language and delivery alienate a public audience.

I found Baroness Worthington’s point particularly powerful, as she pointed to the FTSE ticker on the evening news bulletins as an indication of where the media struggles to connect with the audience. She instead proposed a daily gauge of how clean our electricity is to keep companies in check and raise general awareness.

Ahmed acknowledged that while the media is good at immediate ‘news’, it can often struggle to deliver more long-term stories that are just as significant. He hinted changes could be afoot for the BBC next year in how it presents some of these longitudinal issues.

Could changes be on the way for other news media outlets as well to ensure people remain connected and involved? Time will tell.

 Faith Osier talks to the crowd at the fourth annual Huxley Summit

2. Rethinking Western-centric models of innovation

In fitting with the shift in messaging from ‘climate change’ to ‘climate emergency’, the Huxley Summit heard about the importance of local experts above international solutions.

I was particularly moved by Faith Osier’s inspiring presentation about the incredible work being done in Africa as part of her connection to Sustainable Development Goal 3 – good health and wellbeing. Faith told the crowd there is a wealth of science, innovation and facilities that will continue to grow in Africa. A leading expert in the area of malaria and immunology, she said it is important to consider African expertise at the heart of issues affecting Africa, rather than relying on international experts. By that same token, she also said it was important for local scientists to become involved in international projects and showcase their expertise to lead, rather than complement, international thinking.

While combating the effects of climate change is one benefit, the development of agency and reputation is even more comprehensive for a continent still building its reputation for science and innovation.

 Members of the Young Voices programme in the opening session of the Huxley Summit

3. The next generation

We worked hard to offer a diverse and new generation of leading thinkers the chance to attend and participate the Summit for the first time this year through the New Voices initiative. We invited a cohort of 40 of the top young leaders to join our usual audience of leading political, industry and science experts for the day.

This youthful wave enhanced many of the discussions at the Summit and complemented the theme of diversity and inclusion that started to emerge as the day progressed. They stretched the scope of the discussions and brought perspectives that would otherwise have been lacking. In the morning session, climate scientist Dr Tamsin Edwards spoke about the pitfalls of working towards one all-encompassing solution. Instead of polarising black and white approaches to an ultimate goal, Tamsin reiterated the various shades of grey, and their importance to creating various inclusive decisions.

Sudanese-Australian activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied said the perception of representation was deeper than inclusion at a boardroom level. She suggested placing more emphasis on how sustainability, diversity and environmental frameworks can complement a business’s economic model. She also talked about the importance of embedding inclusivity from the point of a company’s inception, and of giving business students more of an understanding of what an inclusive company looks like.

Mozilla Fellow, Frederike Kaltheuner, was one of 40 young people identified as part of the New Voices programme. She also appeared on the penultimate Summit panel which discussed the importance of technology regulation. Frederike illustrated the dangers to privacy and security, two cornerstones in the relationship between human rights and technology. She also emphasised the disproportionate harm for marginalised communities when it came to technological harms and challenged the UK on the apparent hypocrisy in being a leader in AI ethics while some police forces trialled rolling out facial recognition technology without public consultation.

 NotPla co-founder Pierre Paslier demonstrates his digestible water sachets at the Huxley Summit

4. The effects of the cloud

From Pierre Paslier’s NotPla digestible water bottles to Veera Johnson’s work with Circulor, the digital age is an exciting one that has delivered plenty of innovation. While the benefits in some areas are well noted, developing and maintaining the innovation and tech sectors does have effects on the environment.

When the average email creates the equivalent of 4g of carbon dioxide, it is clear to see the effects of electronic communication and innovation can be daunting. It is important to consider in a digital age the physical components that drive online-based innovation and whether there are cleaner, more environmentally friendly ways of building on this in the future.

One audience member pointed out that the cloud is not a formless, vague place and that it is instead made up of thousands of pieces of hardware which all require energy, thus coming with a carbon footprint. This provided me some food for thought as we often think about technology and innovation as providing solutions to our environmental crisis, not as part of the problem.

 Veolia Chief Technology Officer Richard Kirkman addresses the Huxley Summit

5. Carbon tax back on the table?

It is a discussion that has continued for decades, but the prospect of a carbon tax was raised and proposed by different speakers as an option to combat the effects of climate change.

Chief Technology Officer at Veolia, Richard Kirkman, raised the notion of a small tax that would escalate slowly over time. While the debate has been raised repeatedly, Richard believes politicians are focusing on the environment more than ever, illustrating an increased awareness amongst voters in tackling the climate crisis.

In his closing remarks, Lord David Willetts added one of the biggest economic policies that needed to be developed was around the cost of emitting carbon dioxide. He said providing clean, green companies with incentives, while dissuading others with measures such as a carbon tax, was one significant way of dealing with the issue.

We have touched on this topic on several Summits now and it seems to crop up in conversation more and more. I wonder if it can ever become a reality and what steps must be taken first?

 GF Biochemicals co-founder Mathieu Flamini (right) speaks wit Samira Ahmed at the Huxley Summit

6. Increased optimism on the future

While there has been plenty of work done to date, GF Biochemicals co-founder Mathieu Flamini said there was still a powerful role for individuals to play in the battle against climate change. He told the Summit there needed to be a 360-degree approach encompassing governments, corporations and individuals.

While governments and corporations can make large scale and legislative change, it is the individuals in society who can set the pace because of our influence on corporate goods and services, as well as on the electability of governments.

The final comment of the Summit went to Lord Willetts, who was full of positives when he spoke about creating solutions for the future:

“It’s more doable than I thought it could be, we’re going in the right direction more than I thought we would 10 years ago with the range and representation of speakers and delegates in the room today. We are hearing from the right people.”

At this year’s Summit, there was discussion – as always – on who to blame, and why we have reached the crisis point that we have, with regards to climate change and data privacy. I was encouraged by the range of discussions which focused on solutions above problems and the emphasis on collaboration rather than deflecting blame.

I felt inspired to look at what small actions I can take as an individual, whether that’s looking at our organisational approaches to inclusivity or reducing my carbon or data footprint. Find out more about the Summit here.


Check out the slideshow below for more images from the 2019 Huxley Summit